Life can be confusing.
Sometimes you can’t guess what’ll happen next.
Sometimes you can’t understand what you just saw.
Sometimes you don’t even know what’s happening at all.
Wouldn’t it be nice if some explanation would just pop up in front of you?
Well, when you’re watching foreign language TV and movies, subtitles can do just that.
You might not have handy subtitles to guide you through life, but when you’re watching your favorite videos, you can use subtitles to help you understand what you’re watching and improve your language skills. It’s an immersive learning option you don’t have to go abroad to enjoy!
Here’s all you need to know about using subtitles to enhance your language learning.
The Ultimate Guide to Using Subtitles for Foreign Language Learning
So How Useful Are Subtitles?
The first big benefit of using subtitles is that they make authentic resources accessible in your target language, regardless of your proficiency level.
Since the ultimate goal of language learning is to be able to understand native speakers, it’s important to listen to real media and speech by natives. However, for beginning students, this is often too challenging. Thankfully, subtitling makes that type of content comprehensible even for beginners.
Plus, watching subtitled content is an easy way to transition to watching solely in your target language. If you haven’t watched much authentic content before, it can be daunting, even if you’ve studied the language for years. However, if you start out by watching subtitled content, you can get the skills you need to understand authentic speech in a more supportive, less intimidating and downright fun context.
You can choose to make the subtitled content as easy or as challenging as you want, so it’s perfect for everyone. If you want your viewing to be easy, you can simply read along as you watch—simple! If you want a greater challenge, you can purposely turn off or ignore the subtitling for short spans of time. You can focus on the spoken language while knowing that if you need help, the subtitles are there waiting for you.
There’s also the fact that you can choose between subtitles in your native language or subtitles in the target language. Which brings us to…
The Different Subtitling Options and What They Do for You
Videos in Your Target Language with English Subtitles
This is probably the subtitling option that most learners are familiar with. It enables you to watch any video in any language and completely understand it, regardless of your proficiency level in that language.
There are several benefits to this approach. First of all, it exposes you to the spoken language, familiarizing you with the sounds native speakers use. It’s sort of like training wheels for foreign language comprehension. You’ll also start to build associations between target language words and their meanings.
However, you may want to use this method sparingly, with attention to how much it’s working for you. One study suggests that students with good listening skills might actually be slowed down by using native-language subtitles. Plus, slang and idioms can be more challenging in this context.
Videos in Your Target Language with Subtitles in Your Target Language
Arguably the Holy Grail of subtitling options, watching videos in your target language with subtitles in your target language is a language learner’s dream come true.
It offers a huge array of potential benefits.
For instance, one study suggests that watching videos in your target language with subtitles in the target language can actually improve your own speech, most likely by helping you associate individual words with their sounds.
By the same logic, it can be assumed that simultaneously hearing and seeing words in your target language will help your listening comprehension skills. Without subtitles, words in the dialogue can seem to run together, but seeing them written out can help you identify where one word stops and the next word starts.
It’s also a great opportunity to learn new words in context. The one-two punch of seeing and hearing the dialogue is a great way to absorb new vocabulary. Don’t forget that you can always hit “pause” and look something up in the dictionary!
Videos in English with Subtitles in Your Target Language
While it isn’t as immersive as other options, it’s a super easy and relaxed way to incorporate your target language into your leisure time. You might choose to use it in moderation alongside other subtitling methods.
Many English-language videos like movies offer some foreign-language subtitling options. From this, you can get a little reading practice and might pick up a few new vocabulary words. You can often select a video you’d watch anyway and just tack on the subtitles for a learning bonus.
Hey, why not make your recreation time a little more educational?
How to Learn Effectively from Subtitles Step-by-step
Break Videos into Chunks
Movies go on and on. TV shows can even take some time.
The fact of the matter is that sometimes whatever you’re watching might be pretty long, and this can prove problematic.
First of all, if you’re putting the effort into trying to understand a foreign language, watching for a couple hours straight can be overwhelming. Plus, watching it all straight through will likely cause brain fatigue and you’ll probably miss a lot.
That’s why it’s best to break whatever you’re viewing into chunks. Not only will this prevent you from getting overwhelmed and demotivated, but it’ll also give you plenty of time to linger over the language and milk the learning opportunity for all it’s worth.
To do this, just choose a length of time you think seems approachable. For TV or movies, you might decide to break them down into scenes (no one wants to leave mid-scene without finding out what happens!). Otherwise, you might set a specific time, like five minutes.
Once you’ve decided how you want to chunk whatever you’re watching, you can easily go through and apply the following tips and tricks to enhance your learning experience.
Watch Without Subtitles First
When watching a chunk of a foreign language video for the first time, don’t use subtitles. Some resources allow you to change the settings so they won’t appear on screen. If not, simply try your best to ignore them.
Avoiding the subtitles will help you focus more fully on the language itself. Try to understand as much as you can. If you miss a few words, it’s not a problem and you don’t need to dwell on them—just focus on overall comprehension. If you’ve just started learning the language, focus on absorbing the accent and noticing repeated sounds.
Not only will this give you practice understanding the language without any support, but it’ll also help you to assess your skill level. The more often you practice watching videos, the more you’ll probably understand in your first viewing.
Rewatch Chunks with Subtitling
Once you’ve gone through and watched the video in your target language, add whatever subtitling option suits you. Many sources allow you to set your preferred subtitling option. You wouldn’t want to hurt their feelings by not making full use of this feature, now would you?
You can even go ahead and try switching between subtitle options. For foreign language content, watch it with English subtitles so you get a grasp on what the story’s about. Then, watch with subtitles in your target language to get more language practice and connect the spoken and written words (and possibly identify some words you know but couldn’t pick out on first viewing).
Or do the reverse. Watch subtitles in your target language, then subtitles in English.
Regardless of the scheme you choose, switching between subtitle options will help you practice a wider array of skills while ensuring you fully understand the content. Plus, if you switch between the different options, you can try to determine what option works best for your needs, interests and skill level.
Note Interesting Words and/or Grammar Rules
Whether you’re watching in your target language with English subtitles, watching in your target language with subtitles in your target language or watching in English with subtitles in your target language, you’ll probably notice some interesting words and/or grammar rules as you watch. Don’t just let these fly by! Paying attention to them will help you actively build your language skills.
Below are some specific ideas of words and grammar concepts to listen for. However, as you keep watching subtitled videos, you’ll likely start to build your own list of words and language rules that matter to you.
- Slang: Slang can be hard to understand since it’s largely contextual. Many videos, from YouTube clips to TV episodes, are perfect for learning slang because they expose you to it within a storyline.
Plus, if you use English-language subtitles, they usually subtitle the figurative meaning rather than the literal meaning, which can help you understand how words and phrases are actually used colloquially.
- Synonyms: When studying a language, you’ll often learn a bunch of different words to say the same thing. On the surface, they may seem completely interchangeable. However, as you watch more and more authentic videos in your target language, you’re likely to notice that some are used much more often than others or in different situations.
For instance, there are plenty of ways to say “beautiful” in Spanish. However, in Castilian Spanish TV shows, you’ll hear almost exclusively guapo/guapa (with the occasional precioso/preciosa or bueno/buena).
- Verb conjugations: Did you hear a verb use that sounds strange to you? That might indicate that you haven’t studied the conjugation rules enough and should put more time into it.
To track important words and grammar lessons, jot them down in a notebook. This way, you can refer back to what you’ve learned the next time you try to watch the video, thereby understanding more than you did last time.
Turn the Subtitling Back Off
You’ve divided a video into chunks. You’ve watched it a few times. If you’re watching a video with foreign audio, now it’s time to turn off the subtitles altogether.
Since you’ve familiarized yourself with the clip, it shouldn’t be too hard to follow now, so you’ll want to focus carefully on the language itself.
Try to understand as much as you can. What do the individual words mean? How do they work together?
You might even get out your notebook of words or grammar rules and listen carefully for them once again. This will help reinforce what you’ve learned. You can even keep adding to it, jotting down any additional words, phrases or grammar rules that you find interesting.
Wean Yourself Off of Subtitles
Your ultimate goal in using subtitles when watching foreign content should be to transition away from the subtitles altogether. They’re a momentary crutch that you use to get to a point where you no longer need them.
For many language students, the lure of subtitles is just too great. After all, if you can have them there to glance at should you miss a word, watching seems all too easy. However, don’t get too comfortable with subtitles. One study suggests that if the subtitles are there, you’ll look at them. And if you’re looking at subtitles, you’re splitting your attention between the audio and the written words.
That’s why you should always view subtitling as a temporary option to help propel you towards fluency.
The Top 6 Sites for Finding Foreign Language Videos
Netflix offers a plethora of foreign language TV and movies, which usually offer subtitles in English and the language used in the content.
For instance, Spanish students can watch “Gran Hotel” (“Grand Hotel”) with subtitles in English and Spanish as well as Chinese and German. If you’re looking to change things up, you can even dub over the original Spanish audio with German, Polish or Portuguese.
To find foreign-language content, simply browse the “International” genre for TV or movies. From there, it’s a little trickier—you may have to read the program description to try to guess what language it’s in. Luckily, once you’ve watched something in your target language, Netflix will start giving you plenty more recommendations in that language.
Want to watch English-language works with foreign subtitles? This option is a little harder to find, but still doable. Netflix original programming is usually the easiest option. Since Netflix designs its programs for an international market, you can frequently find subtitling in Chinese, French and Spanish. For instance, fan favorite “Stranger Things” offers subtitling in Chinese, English, French and Spanish.
If you want to sneak in some listening practice, you might even try dubbing it in French, German, Italian or Spanish for a fun twist on the bingeable classic.
How you change your subtitling options will vary based on your device. For instance, if you’re watching from a computer, there’s an icon that looks like a dialogue bubble at the bottom right side of the screen. Hover over it to change your settings. For other devices, you’ll usually need to access the program and go to the “Options” panel. From here, go to “Audio & Subtitles” to change your settings.
If you like subtitles but wish they offered even more learning options, try FluentU.
FluentU provides authentic videos, like movie trailers, music videos, news and more. But unlike other subtitling options, you can do so much more than read along. All of FluentU’s videos are captioned in the language used in the video. But the captions are also fully annotated and interactive—hover over any word for an instant definition, pronunciation and associated image. Wish you could see how a word was used in different contexts? Click the word to see it in other sentences.
Plus, FluentU offers a unique Quiz Mode. Videos, images and example sentences are incorporated into exercises and flashcards to make sure you retain what you’ve learned even after you’re done watching.
With FluentU, you hear languages in real-world contexts—the way that native speakers actually use them. Just a quick look will give you an idea of the variety of FluentU videos on offer:
FluentU really takes the grunt work out of learning languages, leaving you with nothing but engaging, effective and efficient learning. It’s already hand-picked the best videos for you and organized them by level and topic. All you have to do is choose any video that strikes your fancy to get started!
Each word in the interactive captions comes with a definition, audio, image, example sentences and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and easily review words and phrases from the video under Vocab.
You can use FluentU’s unique adaptive quizzes to learn the vocabulary and phrases from the video through fun questions and exercises. Just swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you're studying.
The program even keeps track of what you’re learning and tells you exactly when it’s time for review, giving you a 100% personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or Google Play store.
The lessons are flexible and personalized. You choose what you watch and your pace. However, FluentU also uses an algorithm to track your learning history and present you with questions and video suggestions based on your prior learning, thereby building on what you already know.
Whether you’re using Prime Video, downloading videos or purchasing DVDs, Amazon gives you easy access to some subtitling options.
On the website, Amazon lists “Product Details” for much of its video content, whether it’s on Prime, downloadable or a DVD. In this section, you’ll see a section labeled “Captions and subtitles” and a section labeled “Audio.” These will let you know what subtitling options are available and what audio language options are available.
To change the settings on Prime Video, just go to the “Subtitles & Audio” screen. Online, this is at the top right side of the screen. In other devices or when watching DVDs, you may find subtitling options under “Settings.”
Subtitling options are usually fairly limited with Amazon. You’re most likely to be able to find foreign-language options with English subtitles, though you might find some English-language DVDs with Spanish or French subtitles.
Children’s movies often have some of the best options. For instance, “Moana” on DVD offers audio in English and Spanish and subtitles in English, French and Spanish. Sadly, the downloadable version is not as flexible, but you can find some subtitled authentic works like the French film “Amelie” on Prime.
Your favorite treasure trove of free content just got a little more appealing!
There are tons of subtitled videos on YouTube. The main trick is just finding the ones that work for you, which requires some clever search terms. If you want audio in your target language with English subtitles, you might try searching for the name of the language and “with English subtitles.” For instance, “French with English subtitles” gives you a number of fun options.
If you want the subtitles and audio to use your target language or English language content with subtitles in your target language, try searching “subtitled in” and the name of your target language—in your target language. For instance, “subtitulado en español” (“subtitled in Spanish”) yields a nice mixture of authentic content and English-language content with Spanish subtitles. How about watching Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” with subtitles in English and Spanish?
You’ll also get some results by searching in English (for instance, “subtitled in Spanish”) or even more specific search terms, like “Spanish movies subtitled in Spanish,” which will help you find plenty of movie clips like this scene from a Colombian film.
YouTube also offers auto-generated subtitles, but they’re not to be trusted. If the audio is slow and clear they’ll sometimes be correct, but this isn’t consistent (though it can be hilarious).
With TED Talks, you can actually search what language a video offers subtitling for, making it super easy to find options that suit your needs. From the TED main page, all you have to do is navigate to the TED Talks page. From there, you can search by keyword, topic, language, duration or even all four.
Just note that the audio itself is often in English. Curiously, some TED content with foreign-language audio is available, but not through the main TED page. This is where YouTube is your best buddy again. Try searching “TED talk in…” and the name of your target language to find great playlists, like “TED Talks in Russian.”
Spanish students have an additional bonus resource: the “TED Talks en Español“ playlist is a terrific option with lots of content.
To subtitle the video, click the icon that looks like a dialogue bubble on the bottom right of the screen. Because subtitles are created by volunteers, older videos tend to have more subtitling options than newer videos.
Don’t see the language you want? You can volunteer to subtitle videos to help other users for some extra language practice (and good karma).
Why, yes, Hulu also offers subtitling!
The main focus is providing English and Spanish closed-captioning, so your options will be a little more limited. You can see what captioning options are available in the program description. For instance, fans of the Korean show “Descendants of the Sun” can enjoy it with English captioning but not Korean.
To turn subtitles on or off, just go to the options menu and change your settings. Depending on your device, this might be listed under “Subtitles & Captions” or simply “Captions.”
Your life might not be subtitled, but your favorite language learning activities can be, so give learning a foreign language with subtitles a try!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.